More questions than answers


When I started work at High Country News last May, I volunteered to oversee the January special issue, the one currently in your hands. Aside from the general notion that it should include ideas about the West’s future, with an educational underpinning, I was given free rein to come up with the theme, solicit the stories and put it all together. This was pretty exciting — if a bit intimidating — because I’d just finished a year at the University of Colorado–Boulder, as a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism. As part of that program, I studied environmental philosophy, so I knew there were some interesting new ideas out there — responses to the very real challenges we face today in the West.

These are complicated times. Our climate is shifting in ways that are hard to understand, with implications for all the resource issues that High Country News is concerned with. Wild animals and plants must adapt or die; fossil fuel and renewable energy demands are in flux; drought threatens our water supply, our crops and our forests. We need to step back, take a deep breath and consider the big picture, especially those ideas that challenge many of our long-held assumptions and values. This issue is meant to help in that endeavor. Though by no means comprehensive, it is designed to re-root us in past environmental thinking, while encouraging us to think differently about our undeniably diminishing world.

Nearly all of the stories in this issue are essayistic. I’ve asked our contributors to share their thoughts and ideas on a range of subjects, from whether renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is still relevant, to the philosophical explanation behind a new term — hyperobjects — that describes phenomena like global warming and nukes. We also consider pollution from a new angle, take a critical look at the idea that ecosystems have a price tag, and, in two reported essays, dive into the ideas of sacrifice zones and climate justice. Along the way, you’ll find definitions of philosophical principles, quotations from your favorite environmental thinkers, and a review of top Western programs in environmental philosophy.

Two of the pieces in the back of the magazine are even more atypical of High Country News. One is a lyrical essay by writer and editor Michael McLane, and the other is a science fiction short story by award-winning author Paolo Bacigalupi (once HCN’s Web editor). They’re included because I believe that poetry and fiction can help us think about problems in a different way.

We need all the help we can get. For some questions, there are no easy answers, and this issue does not pretend to provide them. Instead, it’s meant as a kind of prompt — a sign that reads, “Hey, slow down,” reminding you, before you move forward, to ask yourself: What am I thinking?

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